Feature                                                   Pages 18-22



Delivering Instruction Online

What to expect when your schools blend traditional and cyber learning


Three months into our school district’s inaugural venture in online course delivery, the board of education used a live, remote connection on an oversized projection screen at its evening meeting to see and hear one of our first high school cyber students describe her virtual learning experiences.

Lisa Andrejko
Lisa Andrejko (second from left) with high school students who are enrolled in online courses in Quakertown, Pa.

Jessica, a high school junior, was one of the pioneer participants in the Quakertown Community School District’s fledgling program to teach courses online. The board in Quakertown, located an hour north of Philadelphia, had approved the use of federal stimulus funds in 2008 for this investment in teaching and learning, an initiative to raise student achievement while reducing expenses.

We made the move into online course delivery to provide flexibility for students to take underenrolled classes (such as Advanced Placement), allow them to recover credits for graduation and move forward in their education. Most importantly, in my view, the district-sponsored online course delivery could lure students from our school district back from state cyber charter schools, where the track record of student success was alarming. These students returned to the district with a “backpack” of funding. (See related story, "Why We Had to Launch Our Own Online Program.")

The live, synchronous feed that delivered Jessica’s remarks from the comfort of her home had Quakertown school board members highly engaged but anxious. She spoke of her appreciation for the flexibility to take online courses at times that worked best for her and for the independence.

“I was a social butterfly,” she told the board. “I just could not keep myself focused on learning with all my friends around me. I have been much more successful learning at home, at my own pace, on my own time, without distractions. I still see my friends, but now only in social settings, not in the learning environment.”

Hardball Query
Board members peppered Jessica with questions: How could working at a computer be as rigorous as face-to-face instruction? How often did she interact with teachers? Did she feel comfortable using the computer to submit her assignments?

Her responses indicated a successful, positive experience.

Finally, she faced a question from that one board member who sits on governing bodies everywhere and always brings a skeptical outlook to change.

“Jessica, I am sure that not just any student can learn online. You must really have to be dedicated and very disciplined,” he said.

The assumption behind his statement was that online learning could not work for typical students. Only the most gifted children could possibly be dedicated or intelligent enough to succeed in an online course. After a long pause, Jessica, a pretty typical student with B and C grades in her courses, responded.

“Hmmm … discipline,” she said. “Yes, you must be very disciplined. I know that when I first started taking my courses online I would eat a whole bag of Doritos every day while sitting at the computer. Now I have disciplined myself to not eat and do schoolwork at the same time!”

Lemons to Lemonade
Facing severe budget constraints, our district administration knew it had to tackle growing staffing expenditures and stop the hemorrhage of funds from the district coffers paying for our own students to enroll in cyber charter schools, at least a dozen of which operate specifically in Pennsylvania. Each student who left took with him or her approximately $11,000.


Additional Resources

Why We Had to Launch Our Own Online Program

Cyber charters offer students flexibility but not the range of course options or the instructional quality we knew our school provided. Often over the past several years, students had returned to Quakertown schools from the cyber charters failing their courses and out of compliance with attendance regulations. We saw an opportunity to use $264,000 of federal stimulus funds not as a stopgap measure but as an investment to set us on a fiscally responsible path.

We adopted a “self-blend” model, in which all students in grades 6-12 have a full menu of both cyber and blended learning options taught by teachers employed by the school district. Self-blend is a term coined by Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class and a co-founder of the Innosight Institute, which is a not-for-profit, nonpartisan think tank whose mission is to apply Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation to develop and promote solutions to the most vexing problems in education. Some students can earn a district diploma as full-time cyber students. Others graduate having taken their course work in a traditional face-to-face setting. Most students use a combination that includes blended and cyber courses.

Our district’s 80-plus online courses — in all core areas, electives, honors and AP subjects — are taught by certified public school teachers. Some students come to the high school for the full day, some for a handful of class periods and others not at all. Students can choose which learning environment best meets their needs, and they are supported by their teachers in whatever venue they pick. Cyber students are eligible to participate in extracurricular activities and interscholastic sports.

Since our program started four years ago, student achievement has increased along with an expansion in course offerings, gaining the Quakertown Community School District national and international attention. Our district was the recipient of the 2011 Innovative Program Award from the International Association for K-12 Online Learning.

We are a Project RED Signature District, meaning we participate in a professional community that conducts research on technology integration. Project RED released “The Technology Factor: Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost-Effectiveness,” a study of 1,000 schools’ use of classroom technology to influence academic success, reduce dropout rates and disciplinary actions, increase graduation rates and improve high-stakes test scores.

In addition, Quakertown was one of three featured school districts on Digital Learning Day in 2013, sponsored by the Alliance for Excellent Education.

Union Collaboration
Using our own teachers, rather than contracting with outside providers led to support by the local and regional teachers’ association. The only exception is when a certified district teacher is not available for a specialized course, such as Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Latin. The local union president, Chris Roth, himself a teacher of online classes in math and social studies, recognizes a need to embrace 21st-century learning experiences.

“Online learning has helped to preserve positions in QCSD,” Roth says. “There is no reason we cannot compete with cyber charters and keep the funding within the school district by providing our students with the highest quality instruction they have come to expect from Pennsylvania public school teachers.”

The union contract language views cyber learning as a traditional assignment. Time for the cyber class is part of the school-day schedule for teachers, except no students are physically in the classroom at that time. Collaborative conversations with district administration led to contract guidelines regarding class size (which mirror traditional class-size guidelines), planning and professional development.

Adoption Hurdles
Moving into online course delivery was not without difficulties, despite having a tech-savvy teaching staff. How hard could it be to have them create and teach their lessons “cyberly,” using a term invented by Anita Serge, the high school principal at the time of the start-up? But we knew we were in trouble when one teacher asked for a scanner so he could turn all his work into PDFs, an early misguided attempt in creating engaging online content. Professional development for staff needed to change instruction drastically. Teachers began their online courses with only two days of training on Blackboard, the online learning management system. During the first year, the then-technology director, Chris Harrington, called upon the expertise of Performance Learning Systems, specialized professional development consultants, which provided teachers with job-embedded skills training for tapping into the power of the Internet and technology tools to create and sustain engaging lessons.

Today Quakertown teachers coach each other. Tom Murray, the district’s director of technology and the cyber program principal, blends technology seamlessly into the entire K-12 program. All teachers in grades K-12, both cyber and face-to-face, use Blackboard, as we are also a 1:1 computer district with bring-your-own-device technology.

Other issues confronted on our maiden voyage included adapting attendance policies to online enrollees, creating “non-Googleable” assessments, improving student-to-student and student-to-teacher relationships, monitoring student progress, adjusting the pacing of online instruction, and one most-often overlooked issue, community relations.

The school district partnered with the Bucks County Intermediate Unit, the regional services center, in 2011 to form Bridges Virtual, an online learning initiative that provides quality online cyber options to school districts across Pennsylvania and encourages academic collaboration among public schools throughout the state’s southeast region. Because the Quakertown staff could not both manage an online program and share planning and implementation strategies with our colleagues, the school board released Harrington to work full time helping other school districts start their own cyber programs as part of Bridges Virtual. After one year at breaking even financially, Bridges Virtual is well-poised to make a profit. School districts that use these services can have their students take Quakertown’s cyber courses until they have a program up and running in their home district.

Early Results
Our 5,500-student school district had 91 cyber students in grades 9-12 during the first year, 33 of whom took between five and nine courses, mostly in the core subjects. The program is open to students in all grade levels. Quakertown today offers 575 cyber course opportunities, in addition to other classes that are available through open source or Massive Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs). More than 300 Quakertown students, including a few at the elementary level, are enrolled in one or more cyber courses this spring.

More important than the enrollment, course offerings and savings are the favorable results we are seeing. Surveys of students, parents and community members show positive attitudes toward the initiative. While not attributed solely to cyber learning, student performance on standardized state tests and college placement exams are at their highest levels ever, the graduation rates are improved, matriculation to two- and four-year postsecondary institutions has increased, student discipline referrals are down, and more students are returning to the Quakertown schools from charter schools with fewer of our students departing for those outside options. Our high school has earned College Board AP Honor Roll status for increasing the number of students taking AP courses and improving exam results.

I am most proud of how technology has transformed our sleepy little community. Trying to keep up with the wealthier neighbors never has been an option for our district. The community did not have the financial wherewithal to buy its way into technological superiority. Yet Quakertown has surpassed expectations. We are firmly grounded on a course of sustainability. The online education initiative is a profound example of why “community” is our middle name.

Lisa Andrejko, president-elect of Urban Superintendents Association of America, is superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District in Quakertown, Pa. E-mail: Landrejko@qcsd.org. Twitter: @SuptLisa


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